I was recently approached to write an article for the newsletter of the British Watch and Clock Makers’ Guild. The article became a good summary of The Few project so far and so I thought that I would share it. It was published in September 2022.
The Guild is a small organisation, but they hold an important place within the niche of British watch and clockmaking. The Chairman of the Guild for instance is the Queen’s clockmaker, who works at the Palace of Westminster maintaining many national treasures including the clock in the Elizabeth tower – commonly known as “Big Ben”.
Readers from the UK also perhaps recognise Jools Holland, who is the Guild president (for anyone unfamiliar he is an accomplished musician and presenter – who hosts a musical New Year countdown each year).
The Few Watch – by Colin Andrews FBHI
As the Second World War raged in Europe, the world’s most famous aircraft – the Spitfire – was at the forefront of operations to liberate the continent.
Soon after D-Day on 30th July 1944, one of these Spitfires, registered as ML295, was being flown by pilot Harold Kramer over Nazi-occupied France. It was on its 67th mission.
The aircraft was an LF Mark 9, which was a Spitfire variant designed for low altitude flight. At the time it was the cutting edge of Allied aircraft technology, powered by a 27 litre V12 Rolls Royce Merlin 66 engine, producing 1,705 horsepower and capable of reaching over 400mph. It was armed with 2 machine guns and 2 cannons in its wings and enough ammunition for 12 seconds of sustained fire.
This formidable combination made the Spitfire both fast and deadly, and earned it a reputation, among both Allied and German pilots, as the greatest fighter aircraft of the war.
Spitfire ML295 had made a successful attack on a German convoy, when his squadron heard Kramer exclaim over the radio that he’d been hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and his engine had stopped. They watched as Spitfire ML295’s propellor spun to a stop and the aircraft silently glided out of formation and out of sight.Despite having only seconds to make his unplanned landing, Kramer skilfully managed to bring the Spitfire down in a marshy field. He emerged from the aircraft unharmed and made a dramatic escape. Now behind enemy lines, Kramer managed to evade capture for a month, before being able to make his way back to Allied lines and his relieved squadron mates.
Since embarking upon my career as a watchmaker I always had the ambition to be just that – a maker of watches. I was fortunate in that when I initially contacted my local horologist for advice on how best to train, that happened to be Robert Loomes, who was, and continues to be, incredibly enthusiastic and supportive. After enrolling as a full-time horology student, I learned about the historic role Britain had played in the development of watchmaking and the subsequent decline and collapse of the industry. It seemed a shame, but I could see other nations – notably Germany – had enjoyed a tremendous revival of their watchmaking industry around Glashütte and in my optimism I didn’t see any reason why the same couldn’t apply in Britain.
So, I founded my own business, Great British Watch Company, with the aim of eventually producing my own British-made watches.
Over the next 7 years I produced my first watch and built my website, which featured content about aspects of watchmaking and had a particular focus on British watchmaking. It has proven to be popular and since its creation has attracted more than 5 million unique visitors.
The work on my watch began while I was still studying for my BHI exams and it continued during the evenings and weekends when I began to work full-time in the industry. Although that watch is finished, there are always parts that I would want to remake or redesign. One of the reasons it had taken so long to complete was that as I finished a new part and my skill level increased, I would look at some of the earlier work and think that I could remake that a bit better. This would start a domino effect and eventually I’d find myself remaking other older parts. That cycle happened 10 times before I decided to finally accept that the watch was as finished as it would be.
Clearly, replicating such a long turnaround wasn’t something that could become a commercial enterprise and so I was always on the lookout for inspiration for a series of watches that I could make for the public.
Since its crash in 1944, Spitfire ML295 had remained where it landed; submerged in the middle of a pond in Northern France. Almost 75 years later, the wreck was recovered and transferred to Biggin Hill Airfield in Kent to undergo a full restoration.
I became linked to the Spitfire through my cousin, an experienced pilot who had just started training to fly Spitfires. The restoration of Spitfire ML295 had not yet begun and I was invited down to the hangar to take a look; even although at this stage it was still just a skeletal frame. After chatting with the owner and engineers who would work on bringing the Spitfire back to life, I was made aware that there would be parts of the original Spitfire that couldn’t be reused in the restoration – with their condition not being suitable for an airworthy aircraft – and so I had an idea that I could incorporate some of that material in a commemorative watch.
Early into the project I realised the incredibly powerful connection that people felt with the Spitfire. By creating an emotional link to the DNA of the Spitfire and her pilots, it was my intention that the watch was not just a timepiece, but also a visceral reminder of those pilots and the sacrifices they made. With the scale of the project becoming apparent, I knew that this wasn’t something that I could complete in my spare time – if I wanted the endeavour to be successful, it would need my full attention. So I made the decision to leave work, create my own workshop and begin working on the project full-time.
After some research into the design, I settled on an homage to the watch that many Spitfire pilots wore, the Omega CK 2129, also known as the Weems watch. Working alongside current Spitfire pilots to help design the timepiece, we came to modify and upgrade the original watch design so that they could wear it today as part of their pilot’s uniform.
I also aspired to build the watch entirely in Britain – that was my company’s objective, after all. To be able to complete such a series of watches though, I would need help, as I did not have access to the sort of high precision automated machinery that would be needed, nor the time to create each component of the watch by hand, as I had done with my first watch.
This was certainly a challenge, as the UK currently has a very small watchmaking industry and there was not an opportunity to use third parties to readily produce parts needed – as would be possible if I went to Switzerland or China.Despite this lack of infrastructure, the difficulty of working with material from the 1940s and the onset of a global pandemic I knew, having already made my own watch by hand, that it was achievable.
There was certainly world-class skill, expertise and equipment in the UK – it was all just working within different industries. So, my initial challenge was to try to convince this talent to become involved with the project. I was aided in this task by being able to draw upon the powerful name of an iconic aircraft.
Even after more than 80 years since the Battle of Britain, when people hear “Spitfire” the hairs stand up on the back of their neck and they are reminded of the deadly ballet these men and their machines performed, as they fought for the salvation and liberation of those enslaved by tyranny.
With persistent enthusiasm, I found world-class artisans and engineers who were eager to be part of the project – the majority being within just 20 miles of my workshop. With their help, the watch turned from an idea into a reality.
The watch initially had the working title of “Spitfire Watch”, although it soon became known as “The Few”, in honour of the name given to those few pilots who saved Britain during her darkest and finest hour. It also represented the few remaining Spitfires that are left and the limited number of watches that would be created to celebrate the heroic pilots and their iconic aircraft.
As my research uncovered the story of the Spitfire from which The Few would be made and the men who flew her, it became apparent that to do justice to their legacy I needed to build that soul into the watch. Work soon began to get underway on the watch and progress was being made – then Covid19 arrived. This frustrated a lot of the development, however it allowed me to concentrate on other areas – particularly the research into the Spitfire and the pilots.
Little was known about the Spitfire when I became involved – there was a registration number, ML295, and a pilot’s name, Kramer. I thought I could add in a bit more detail about the
aircraft with some research, but the research ended up quickly ballooning and after hundreds of hours of work I had managed to find an absolute treasure trove of information. There were 67 missions/sorties that Spitfire ML295 took part in and 11 pilots that flew in her.
Working with the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum I have uncovered original combat reports, videos of the Spitfire in combat and managed to get in touch with family members of some of the pilots. That last aspect was particularly rewarding as, was often the case, those that saw the horrors of war first hand generally coped with the experience by not speaking of it again. With Kramer as an example, his son only knew a little about his father’s service, with him only ever having recounted the story of his crash landing and escape once, when his son was still young. Despite the time that had passed, Kramer’s son retained a vivid memory of his father’s story.
Through the National Archives I was able to find a transcript of the original interview that Kramer had given to intelligence services when he had returned from behind enemy lines. Incredibly the stories not only matched but when combined, gave a full and colourful picture of Kramer’s journey through France, including additional details such as the journey from a railway station to a farm that he had recounted to his son was revealed to have been organised by the French resistance, and he travelled by being smuggled in the boot of a local vicar’s car!
The tip of the wing of the Spitfire that I am working with is made from a sheet of aluminium that was just 0.6mm thick. This is the standard thickness for a watch dial, so it lent itself perfectly for the purpose. The challenge with the material was that due to its slightly tarnished state (having been partially submerged in a pond since 1944), the surface was not smooth. This meant any attempt to traditionally print onto the dial resulted in an uneven finish.
So, a new method was devised to add the numbers and indexes to the dial. First the design was laser etched into the surface and then it was finished by hand.
Another challenge with the dial was how to fix it to the movement. Generally, dial feet are used, which are either welded or soldered onto the reverse of the dial. The heat from this would have damaged the aluminium and so I had to think of an alternative method. Due to the fact that I was creating the case, I designed it so that the dial fits into the case like a jigsaw piece, which enables it to be held in place with no room to either twist or lift, without the need for dial feet.
For the watch case, which was relatively complicated, I managed to secure the help of a facility that usually works on satellites, rockets and other government-funded top-secret projects. They have been incredibly enthusiastic about the project and have afforded me access to the absolute cutting edge of technology and expertise.
The authenticity of the materials used in the watch includes not just the Spitfire material, but also the wood used in the box and the steel used in the case. Each watch will be issued with a certificate showing that the case was not only machined in Britain, but that the steel – a British Standard aerospace grade –came from a British steel mill; with a batch number allowing you to trace exactly when and where it was made, the verified chemical composition of the steel and evidence that it was x-rayed and found to have no flaws.
Another benefit of creating all aspects of the watch myself was that I was able to tailor the parts to allow for a choice of movement to be used. For those that wanted a 100% made-in-Britain watch, a vintage Smiths 0104 calibre (made in Cheltenham) could be chosen. For those that would prefer a more modern timepiece – which is what the modern Spitfire pilots themselves requested – a top-of-the-range Swiss-made movement can be fitted.
It was my intention that the watch’s presentation would be an experience, so accompanying the watch is a box built from Spitfire propellor material, along with silver cufflinks that also incorporate part of the Spitfire, a cleaning cloth printed with the design of the escape map that Kramer and two more of ML295’s pilots used to avoid capture after having been shot down, along with a book that has been made to look like an authentic training manual, which recounts all the stories of the Spitfire and pilots that I have collected.
By prioritising authenticity and sympathetic use of both the materials and the stories, I seem to have hit the right note. Through just a monthly newsletter I grew an enthusiastic audience and from that, a waiting list of those interested in the watch. When I was finally ready for orders to be taken, with a significant deposit, the initial watches were taken up within three days. While the initial run of watches is being completed, I have opened a second reserve list for further orders.
My next watch project, named the Dirty Dozen, will be ready for sale later this year. Based on the highly collectible WW2 design of watch that was issued to the British Army, a total of just 12 watches have been made.
I do feel incredibly fortunate to be able to fulfil my dream of creating my own watches and to be involved with the iconic Spitfire. Although there were challenges in making the watches in Britain, I’m glad that I persevered and hopefully helped demonstrate that, alongside established British watch brands, there is a flourishing worldwide demand for British watchmaking.
Completing these current projects should keep me busy for the next two years and after that I have no shortage of ideas for what to work on next – having also been approached to undertake some commissions. Now that I have achieved the milestones of manufacturing dials, crowns, hands and cases in Great Britain, I plan to start working on some movement modifications as a next step towards producing the first GBW calibre.